There may be debates on if idolising someone in shaping one's life helps or constrains his/her thinking and choice. But, children and juveniles try to imitate others, mostly senior to them, in formative years to develop personality and determine their future values and actions. And if disillusioned about a favourite character, a youth may falter or in turn find a better solution to life's unique challenges.
In Bangladesh today, the youth have generally avoided the Bohemian path unlike the one many of their predecessors had indulged to. Instead of venturing on oftentimes violent student politics as seen until the 1990s or spending years reciting poems that quite a few university students did during their golden days, a Bangladeshi youth of the 21st century of globalisation, prefers pursuing a job and building a family.
This suggests a failure of earlier generations - no matter how clever or altruistic they were - to leave their torchbearers. The new generation of people, failing to discover their idols in the seniors, are not also readying themselves to be venerated as great men and women by their juniors. Stars, as they were once perceived to be by commoners or fans, have somewhat lost their public face for failure to set examples to help others in leading their lives.
The country's youth 'do not have local role model' as they often refer to globally famed personalities for taking inspiration. This was reflected in a youth conference titled 'Bangladesh and Agenda-2030, Expectations of the Youth' in Dhaka in 2018. "We should think about social development plus career development, not social development vs career development," a youth leader said.
Such statements are insinuating that the issue of what is called social role models is more than a mere liking for a person or an imagined glory of anything or what his/her fame bears. A study report, presented at that conference, mentioned that more than 80 per cent of the Bangladesh youth today were anxious about the country in view of uncertain future, social insecurity, lack of decent jobs, and burden of family responsibility.
It's kind of anxieties which, among other factors, has replaced their admiration for role models in society and this is a reality when enlightened citizens and young enthusiasts talk more about its importance. And the Bangladesh people of elderly generations had their own heroes, especially public figures in different fields during their adulthood when they were not familiar with this particular term. One may think, someone known to a big audience should be be considered a special one.
What's it, then?
A role model, according to dictionary definition, is a person whose behaviour, example, or success is or can be emulated by others, especially by younger people. The term 'role model' was coined by a sociologist named Robert K Merton, who hypothesised that individuals compare themselves with reference groups of people who occupy the social role to which the individual aspires.
Business dictionary says: "An individual who is looked up to and revered by someone else. A role model is someone who other individuals aspire to be like, either in the present or in the future. A role model may be someone who you know and interact with on a regular basis, or may be someone who you've never met, such as a celebrity."
In America, role models include political figures like Abraham Lincoln, civil rights leaders like Dr Martin Luther King Jr, sportsmen like Muhammad Ali, singers like Michael Jackson, talk-show host Oprah Winfrey and corporate figures like Bill Gates. Priests, police officers and parents are also emulated by others in the West. However, there are negative impacts of unexpected behaviour of celebrities on those who admire them. Film director Roman Polanski is such a name.
"Role models can have positive or negative impacts on children. For example, many of us know teens who emulated the wrong role models - people who were detrimental to their lives. Yes, these people are role models too!" wrote Marilyn Price-Mitchell in an article 'How Role Models Influence Youth Strategies for Success'.
So, history will define what kind of icon Donald J Trump, the real-estate-businessman-turned-US-President, who is widely criticised for allegedly promoting white supremacy and misogyny, would be called. There are quite a number of other statesmen around the world, each of whom suppresses his/her own people but is promoted as iconic figure - locally and internationally. New Zealand's Jacinda Ardern makes a difference by standing by the Muslims of her country after the mosque massacre earlier this year. In the intellectual domain, Edward Said is respected worldwide as America's dissenting voice. Arundhati Roy is dubbed debater of big things. Revolutionary Che Guevara influenced a generation and Arab guerrilla Laila Khaled drew global attention in the 1970s.
Educators are revered in Asian societies that once developed some social cults. Globalisation changes a lot of things and also the Asian landscape inclusive of Bangladesh's, is undergoing changes in defining and respecting the ones who should be respected. "Not necessarily they will be picked only from the big leaders. They may be big leaders and may not be as well. For example, a good public servant can be a good role model for the society. The one who shows dedication to public service maintaining high ethical standard should be recognised as role model in civil service and even outside the realm of bureaucracy," noted economist Hossain Zillur Rahman in an article on 'Role models need to be recognised for better business'.
Examples in business
Despite widespread use of the term in today's world of business, it cannot be ascertained how far each of the successful persons was inspired by someone else in attaining success. However, as we commonly see, a European study report titled 'Entrepreneurship and Role Models' observed that in the media role models are increasingly being acknowledged as an influential factor in explaining the reasons for the choice of occupation and career.
Published as an article in Journal of Economic Psychology, in the Netherlands, in 2011,the report said 27 per cent of its samples were experienced entrepreneurs who were 'less inclined to use role models'. "This information confirms the potential of role models to serve as a self-reinforcing mechanism when entrepreneurship is gaining popularity in a country or region."
The article, authored by a number of university faculties, pointed out that given that role models are increasingly seen as important for determining career choice and outcomes, educational institutes around the globe more and more involve 'icon' entrepreneurs in their educational programs to motivate, inspire and support entrepreneurship among pupils and students. "While individuals are extensively and increasingly exposed to entrepreneurial role models through the media, these 'icons' are seldom considered role models for entrepreneurs in our sample. This suggests that entrepreneurial role models tend to be next-door examples rather than more remote 'icons'," the article said, however, adding that role models play an important role for entrepreneurs in (young) firms."The dominant function of a role model is 'learning by example', although 'learning by support', 'increasing entrepreneurial self-efficacy' and 'inspiration/motivation' are also important (perceived) functions of role models."
Role models in business arena today are more important as Hossain Zillur Rahman argued, they give solutions to various business problems and puzzles by doing, showing, innovating and advising. He thinks, business role models are those who try to go ahead and who overcome problems. Apple's Steve Jobs is an interesting case as business graduates admire his determination and success but may not want to see in their own lives the pains he took in the pursuit of goals. In Bangladesh, there are still confusions surrounding entrepreneurial role models.
Hossain Zillur Rahman mentioned, some become role models, be they recognised or not, in a completely different manner. "Microcredit is a classic example in which the microcredit distributors and recipients both proved certain amount of creativity. So is readymade garments sector where unskilled and semi-skilled women showed their ability to create the platform of a dynamic sector. Entrepreneurs here are the first generation businesspeople who have shown the greater path of creating a made-in Bangladesh brand," he elucidated. "Business role models should not be limited to any particular sector. They should be defined by their initiatives, creativity and solutions to existing problems."
Ones around us
How we in Bangladesh regard respectable characters is yet another paradox like our development journey, once plagued by 'basket case' stigma and, the country was then called a puzzle for social sector achievements and high growth rate. In the 1970s, a thief was said to have returned values he stole from the house of a legendary singer, Abdul Alim. Today, a national cricket hero can hardly enjoy undisputed status or a freedom fighter doctor faces demeaning remarks.
Thus, economic growth and phenomenon of role models have moved in opposite directions - while the former rose, the latter marked fell. We haven't also failed to make the culture of recognising a model farmer, a model police officer, physician or engineer, a model social worker, a model student etc. although we speak of such ideals.
Hossain Zillur Rahman's article shed light on local perception of the matter: "One of our shortcomings in the perception of role model is that we define them almost only by glamour. In fact, it has been injected into our thought process that role models should be glamorous people."
In the process, we failed to notice the real life champions or possible gurus living around us. For example, that a father and a mother are the best and closest persons to admire as models is somehow ignored. A popular protagonist of Bangla movies was said to have pulled out an actor friend from a roadside tea shop, arguing, 'You're a star, you cannot go with the commoners!' Understandably, simplicity is not anacceptable diction in looking at role models.
In our schools and universities, we had our senior brothers and sisters and even batch mates who were often imitated by the juniors and friends for maintaining lifestyle and pursuing a career. Good performance of students was earlier appreciated by others whereas it is nowadays celebrated mainly by themselves. Conflicting relations among the professionals have also been common.
However, loss of social voluntarism, decline in student politics in recent decades and spread of consumerism in society have perhaps made most people more self-centred, depleting the status of social guides. Thanks to higher flow of information through various media, some people may feel that they don't need to borrow knowledge from friends and next-door neighbours, who, accordingly, are not offered any additional respect. That too demonstrates certain amount of envy and even hostility in mind.
Therefore, persona is something which is largely missing in our society. Unfortunately, we have lost respect for many figures and leaders of various sectors, virtually creating a vacuum. Also, why and how will the younger generation enthusiastically follow the suit of some famous senior citizens who can no longer boast of their own acts, if they are devoid of conscientious justifications? And one example of how a wrong policy affects the status of father figures in society is centralisation - due to migration of people to Dhaka, regional hubs and district towns cannot create local legends notwithstanding the tradition of the previous century.
In fact, Bangladesh's attainments as lauded by the outside world, mostly highlight sectors such as microcredit, readymade garments, remittances and social progress. Historic achievements signify mainly events - the 1757 battle of Plassey, the 1857 Sepoy Mutiny, the end of British colonial rule in 1947, the 1952 language movement, the 1971 war of liberation, the 1990 student-mass upsurge and so on. "Role model relates to larger than life leadership that shows the oath of salvation to others through lifetime achievements and lesson of a whole life…I think Nelson Mandela belongs to this category… We have serious gaps in this particular type of role model," Hossain Zillur noted.
There is a broad-based failure to institutionalise charisma of leaders from the lowest to upper-most echelons, resulting in a lack of institution building and showing absence of proper respect for others unlike the importance of INDIVIDUAL in enlightened societies. The room for growth of individual requires, among other factors, respect for social icons and mentors as well as democratic pluralism and space to express.
In a state of 'un-role models'
People's willingness to become prominent at any cost is nowadays more visible. This tendency can be compared with the Americans' longing for attaining the status of millionaire as a recent survey says more than 60 per cent of over 1,000 people aspire to become rich. The GOBankingRate's survey points out that about 70 per cent millennial respondents aged between 25 and 34 years were the most likely to have a plan for how to get rich.
On the social media, almost everyone wants to become a celebrity and that's perhaps natural in the sense that this is for the first time in history the subalterns and more commoners have got the privilege to express themselves. This rise of an individual on the net has shattered the old establishment and its beneficiaries and sycophants who often come up with hostile reaction to newly visible difference of opinion. So, when the Arabs wanted to present late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat as the symbol of struggle for salvation, we saw powerful politics that tried to malign this life-long refugee, fighter by calling him terrorist. How do they look at blood-stained hands of former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon or late Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic? Or, the status of Nathuram Vinayak Godse, the killer of Mahatma Gandhi, in India?
In our country, there is a tendency to stigmatise someone who is, for example, an advocate of change but belongs to a different school of thought. As such, clowns in Bangla cinema have become redundant while social heroes disappeared from the scene. We are not confident that songs of Rabindranath Tagore and Nazrul Islam are played the way the Bengalis listened to for over five decades.
Moreover, some mentors like a section of intellectuals have failed to uphold their integrity or deliberately spoken against the people's rights and virtually in favour of corrupt practices, and due to social media tools, their acts are known to commoners. "Corruption has spread so much so that we have lost the concept of role models in public domain. Members of Parliament (MPs) could have been good role models for the people of different ages and across various segments but unfortunately image of most of the MPs, if not all, has been stigmatised for reasons well known to conscious people," wrote Hossain Zillur Rahman. He added that the country suffers in quality for lack of role models. "This is applicable in the business and economy, education, healthcare, roads and infrastructure, mills and factories, agriculture and urbanisation."
The researcher recalled, "Community leadership was a major area of role models that proved the strength of traditional Bangladesh society. Who founded schools and charity organisations in our part of the world? It was all about personal initiative for the community or collective initiative for the collective welfare. Because of decline in such collective thinking the role models in rural society have largely withered away."
Why are they relevant
When we shy away from recognising someone as idol or naming one's own chosen one, it is necessary to restore harmony. Without someone having credibility to rely on, how will the people hold a constantly required social dialogue for addressing and accommodating conflicting views in a society?
"Let us admit that deficiency in role models is one of crises in Bangladesh. This is simultaneously a cause and effect of social tensions, lack of tolerance and due respect for others. We have hardly any role models who could resolve social and political tensions and this is a cause of social frustration, especially among today's youths," observed Hossain Zillur Rahman, and emphasised the need for recognising role models for collective social interests and developing a culture of mutual respect. "Role models are important because they inspire others around them, because they provide a set of values and they show the path how to succeed in life. They give confidence to others that change is possible," he added.
The demise of one set of role models that dominated generations in Bangladesh and elsewhere does not, however, indicate the end of history. Rather, the current vacuum proves relevance of a new pattern of social leaders who can guide fellow human beings during the transition. The protagonists of a cause - dead or alive -who are being tested today, will find revival tomorrow. It can be neither incarnated nor imposed on the posterity. It's the prerogative of the youth of this generation to choose their heroes and mentors.
Khawaza Main Uddin is Content Specialist at FE.
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